Assessing Amber

by Melissa Brunner

The story from Kansas City is shocking - a little girl, snatched from her crib while she slept. As I write this, police say they have no idea where 10-month old Lisa Irwin is or who snuck into her family's Kansas City, Missouri home in the dead of night to take her.

The case once again draws attention to the use of the AMBER Alert system. AMBER stands for America's Missing Broadcast Emergency Response. The goal is to quickly alert the public when a child has been abducted and is in imminent danger. While there are national recommendations, each state sets its own criteria for when an AMBER alert may be issued.

In Lisa Irwin's case, police were notified she was missing at 4 am Tuesday. Kansas City, Missouri authorities issued an AMBER Alert at 7 am, once they had sufficient evidence that Lisa was, in fact, abducted. However, the alert was not issued statewide and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation says it was not requested to issue an alert in Kansas, either. Why? Missouri's criteria for issuing a statewide AMBER Alert includes the following stipulation: "Enough descriptive information exists about the victim and the abductor." Since law enforcement had no description of a suspect or even a suspect vehicle, it did not rise to Missouri's alert level. News reports indicated Kansas City and St. Louis are able to activate local alerts, which is what happened with Lisa Irwin.

Adding to the confusion was the cancellation of the alert Tuesday night. If Lisa wasn't found, why was it canceled? Kansas City authorities indicated the purpose of the alert was to get the public's attention for the case and they felt, after 12 hours, that was achieved. But they were not, they said, scaling back the search itself. In fact, the Missouri AMBER Alert page says this about the duration of broadcasting any alert message: "After four hours the station may, at its discretion, continue to broadcast follow-up announcements once per hour for twenty hours."

Kansas, too, has criteria established for issuing AMBER Alerts. They are similar to Missouri's in terms of a child age 17 or younger believed to be in imminent danger. The Kansas criteria says this about descriptive information: "There is information to disseminate to the general public which could assist the recovery of the victim or apprehension of the suspect."

The criteria exist so that the alert system is not overused. Authorities don't want to have a "boy who cried wolf" effect, if you will. If too many alerts are issued, they argue, the public will start to tune them out, defeating the intended sense of urgency. What do you think? Do authorities need to re-evaluate the criteria or are they fair? I've included the full Kansas and Missouri criteria below.

In Kansas:

  • The child should be 17 years-of-age or younger or have a proven mental or physical disability.
  • Law enforcement must believe the child is in danger of serious bodily harm or death.
  • There is information to disseminate to the general public which could assist the recovery of the victim or apprehension of the suspect.
In Missouri:

1. Law enforcement officials have a reasonable belief that an abduction has occurred, which meets the definition in RSMo. 565.110 or 565.115.

2. Law enforcement officials believe that the child is in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death.

3. Enough descriptive information exists about the victim and the abductor for law enforcement to issue an AMBER Alert.

4. The victim of the abduction is a child age 17 years or younger.

5. The child's name and other critical data elements - including the child abduction (CA) flag - have been entered into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) system. 

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